Explorations on Style is now on Twitter. If you are so inclined, you can follow me @explorstyle. I will tweet new posts and related links. In the event of breaking news in the area of academic writing, I am now ready!
Here are a few articles that I found interesting as I attempted to catch up after my vacation (it wasn’t easy to narrow it down—Google Reader left unattended for a month is an alarming thing!).
Here is something from Slate on writing more quickly. The author comes to two key conclusions: one, writing is intensely cognitively difficult for almost everyone (so, it’s not just you); and, two, surmounting those difficulties requires sustained hard work and the application of familiar principles (so, there are no quick fixes). An efficient writing process generally requires adequate preparation, realistic goals, and a regular commitment to writing. Even though this article isn’t saying anything new about the challenges of writing, it does a good job conveying the psychological toll that writing can take. That psychological toll seems to be exacerbated by the persistent sense that writing is somehow harder than it should be. I think many writers would benefit from the awareness that writing simply is that hard: writing is a complex process of thinking and not a simple matter of reporting what we already know.
Here is something from The Chronicle of Higher Education on deep attention and hyper attention. The author’s own interest is the role of deeply attentive reading in an undergraduate education; his interesting contention is that education generally requires something other than deeply attentive reading. My interest, however, is in the perennial question of how we should read the crazy amount of material available to us. I’ve posted articles on this before; I think I am drawn to this topic because managing our reading time is crucial to our eventual ability to write about what we know. For many people, reading is easier than writing; for a smaller group of people—of whom I am one—writing is easier than reading, an inclination that comes with its own set of challenges. For the perpetual readers, good strategies for reading are essential if they are to be able to get to the writing stage. For those of us who rush the reading to get to the writing, good strategies for reading are also essential if we are to have the mastery of the topic that underlies good writing.
Finally, here is something from The Thesis Whisperer about the university as a bad boyfriend. What I particularly liked about this post is the tone: realism without bitterness. Finding this stance vis-à-vis the university seems crucial if we are to hold our institutions accountable without succumbing to hyperbole or despair. There are, of course, many reasons to be critical of our institutions. And it can be intellectually satisfying to hone those critiques. But if you are staying within the university, it is also necessary to know how to engage with the university in a way that will be personally fulfilling.
During one-on-one writing consultations, I often find myself using the following phrase with students: ‘bad news, good news’. Of course, it is more natural to say ‘good news, bad news’, but I like to start with the bad news. I don’t do so to be discouraging, but rather to emphasize that the first impression given by their writing is problematic. Real readers—the ones who read your writing out of inclination rather than obligation—won’t necessarily last long enough to discover the good news: the ‘bad news’ is often what readers notice first. Novice writers who are accustomed to the dynamics of undergraduate writing may imagine that readers are routinely willing and able to distinguish valuable content from difficult writing. It’s true that some readers—particularly the ones who are paid to read your writing—will work through the hard parts to get to the interesting ideas. But we get fewer and fewer of those readers as we move through our careers, and, increasingly, we must submit our writing (to grant competitions or for publication or in support of job applications) to people who are not obliged to read our writing and who may in fact be looking for weaknesses as a way to differentiate among many qualified applicants. All of which is to say, first impressions matter.
First impressions can be influenced by simple things such as standard spelling, grammar, font, formatting, etc. But first impressions can also be influenced by a confusing structure. In such cases, I often write things like ‘transition?’ or ‘placement?’ in the margins. Those queries are then expanded in person: ‘Do you think this is what your reader is expecting you to discuss here?’. Since the message usually sounds a bit dire (‘as it stands, this piece of writing is pretty hard to understand’), I like to follow it up with the good news. The good news is that structural problems are often curable, especially if diagnosed in time. I mention time because structural decisions do become harder to reverse the longer they are allowed to stand. By curable I mean that fixing structural problems won’t necessarily require the hard work of rewriting every sentence. Some sentence-level work will inevitably be necessary at some point, but improving placement and transitions, even without that sentence-level work, can make a huge difference to your writing.
So what does this mean to you at home, where there is nobody to offer you these diagnoses? It means that reverse outlines should always be an early part of your revision process; I find them an invaluable way to transition from the drafting to the revision stage, but others may find this strategy to be helpful at various points in the writing process. It also means maintaining a strong sense of efficacy when confronted by real structural problems early in a draft. When editing yourself, use good editing strategies so that your ‘bad news’ isn’t just an inchoate sense that a piece of writing isn’t any good. By forcing yourself to engage in large-scale structural edits (rather than just playing around with individual sentences), you will see that much of your writing can be saved. Figuring out how to use what you’ve got to achieve your goals and meet your reader’s expectations means that you will be making real progress while still evaluating your existing draft with a necessarily stern eye.
Hello again! I hope you are all having enjoyable and productive summers. I am happy to be back at work after a relaxing vacation, and I am particularly happy to be back to thinking about this blog; being away from it for a whole month has given me a chance to reflect on how I want to proceed for the upcoming year. My plan is to keep the same basic format but to decrease the frequency of posts. As much as I love writing this blog, I am aware that doing so has diminished the time I have for other writing projects. Those writing projects need to get done for all the obvious reasons but also, I now realize, for the ongoing health of this blog. If I devote all my writing energy towards this blog, I am necessarily doing less conventional academic writing. Since conventional academic writing is what both my students and readers of this blog are likely to be doing, I need to be sure that my approach is informed by my personal engagement with that sort of writing.
So I will now post regularly on Wednesdays, alternating between posts on key topics in academic writing and posts with curated links about academic writing in its broader context. I will be back next week with some reflections on addressing broad structural issues in academic writing. In the meantime, since everyone seems to agree that blogs benefit from ‘visually striking images’, here are some photos from a recent trip to Alaska. I know this is cheating—these images have absolutely nothing to do with academic writing—but I hope you enjoy them anyway!
Photos: Mitch Davis